• Photo: © Erik Tomasson)

Shostakovich Trilogy. San Francisco Ballet

Helgi Tomasson, Artistic Director

Alexei Ratmansky, Choreographer

War Memorial Opera House

May 7-12, 2019

Reviewed May 7, 2019

Sfballet.org

“Shostakovich Trilogy” is an evening-long tour de force by Russian-born choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. It’s outstanding for its theme: the tumultuous reconciliation of a world-altering revolution and subsequent counter-revolution with the career of Dmitri Shostakovich, a composer influenced by Igor Stravinsky, whom music scholars have described as “polystylist.” Luminous production values and inventive design reach for the magnificent. An allied but not insignificant virtue is the work’s capacity to reveal San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s adroit eye for choosing dancers.

I remember once reading a description of Lincoln Kirstein’s determination to round up talent for Ballet Society and its successor, New York City Ballet: “He was like a babushka, off to market in her headscarf and shawl, carrying a shopping basket on her arm.” With a few modifications, something similar could be said of Tomasson.  Many dancers in this company start out fully in harness. Others stretch into their potential warily, over time, or in fits and starts. Whatever it takes, whether coaching by in-house ballet masters and guest stagers, or becoming clay in the hands of respected and respectful choreographers such as Ratmansky, they ultimately  find their depth by working from the inside out to deliver the drama in legato works, comedy in character roles, all the while improving technique in serial encounters with quick-twitch kinesiology.

“Shostakovich Trilogy,” staged by the incomparable Nancy Raffa, comes in three parts. Each adheres to an autobiographical tracing that coincides with the brutal counterrevolution undertaken by Joseph Stalin on the backs of Russia’s workers and farmers. Its tyranny paved the way for that multi-nation country’s ultimate return to the chaos of capitalism. Shostakovich, whose talents were initially recognized and promoted under the patronage of Soviet Chief of Staff Mikhail Tukhchevsky, became Stalin’s darling for an extended season, until the composer could no longer tolerate the regime’s imposition of Socialist Realism and censorship. Eventually he fell out of  favor, resulting in suppression of his work. 

In “Symphonie #9,” men in black cavort. Women in green velvet cami dresses glissade into turns ending in syncopated bunny-hop jumps hyping cloying enthusiasm. Joseph Walsh imports a youthful, buoyantly joyful intensity and openness—presumably borne of the newly won freedom ignited by the first five years of the 1917 Russian Revolution. He’s a bright light beacon. In his four seasons with the company, Walsh has buffed up a distinct polish of his own. Its purity of spirit  harkens back to the Gene Kelly era.  At the same time, he heat-seeks a full report from his partners. This evening his partner is Dores André, who punctuates her Walsh- transported lifts with generous balloné. 

Aaron Robison arrives channeling the seasoned, if darkly conflicted Shostakovich. He and Jennifer Stahl push toward and away from each other to the accompaniment of a flute. A frontier peopled by creeping dancers assembles semi-clandestinely.  As the ballet orchestra’s strings add depth, Robison brakes several times, possibly marking breaches when the revolution is successively  deprived of the few remaining gains that have blunted the impact of what Fidel Castro called out as “something worse than capitalism,” the betrayal from within of an anti-capitalist revolution.

Ratmanksy has a gift for edging each pas de deux with a short repetition of its threading with a cache of ensemble dancers. They bear witness to each new historic context. Lenin liked to say that a good tailor measures seven times before he cuts. It could be said that Ratmansky secures each historic tapis he drapes on his protagonist’s shoulders with seven layers of top stitching. Nobody leaves the house unbound to this historic work!

Wei Wang stakes his claim to the front burner with contender-level attack and bravura. Set designer George Tsypin has made his stunning contribution with a jigsaw-fractured line drawing drop. It’s a rendering of a tight assemblage of official onlookers, a Stalin-chiseled Mount Rushmore, in the socialist-realist style. Owing to ingenious design and construction, it can’t excuse its fault lines as endemic to its genre, nor the subsets that collect within it as it looms Bonaparte-like above the fray. It seems to lament, “The more smugly we gang together, the more prone we are to revealing the chinks in our armor.”

In “Chamber Symphony,” Ulrik Birkkjaer dances a beleaguered first-person litany of grievances. His interpretation brings to mind what audiences loved about the world-renowned Jorge Esquivel’s Albrecht when he partnered the Cuban National Ballet’s Alicia Alonso in “Giselle,” a seasoned, present, and indefatigable virility. Sasha De Sola, Mathilde Froustey, and Yuan Yuan Tan dance the roles of the women in the composer’s life. Froustey, as the wife who dies, raises the couple’s temperature until it brings about her abrupt downfall and demise. She shapes an arc that balances polarized valences to liberate a specie of passion that is contradictorily lofty  and recklessly visceral.
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The final panel in the triptych arrives on a palette of Bolshevik red, challenged by a grim Stalin-tinged grey, and is danced to the composer’s best-known work, “Piano Concerto #1.”  Sofiane Sylve pairs with Wona Park, a guest artist from Boston Ballet, who in her January Gala appearance elicited shrieks and applause from an audience brought to its feet. Outfitted in matching Russian Red swimsuits, the two fiery women light up the night. Sylve scintillates; Park nukes. With partners Carlo Di Lanno and Angelo Greco in their thrall, and orchestra conductor Martin West leading the charge, they dance a cataclysm of unfettered rebellion under a stabile representative of a life’s reliquary during a double-edged era.

Toba Singer

Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.